Friday, December 30, 2011

Mary's Pit Bar-B-Que

Quest Log No26 – Mary’s Pit Bar-B-Que
Gurley, Madison County

The building has two doors in the front. Back in 1958, when it they opened Mary’s Pit Bar-B-Que in what was then the hamlet of Maysville, you would enter through the right door if the complexion of your skin was pale, and through the left door if it was not so pale. Since then, the left door has been blocked, so everybody uses the right door now, independently of their tan lines, but not much more seems to have changed there in over fifty years.
The actual “restaurant”, and I use this term rather loosely again, is a teeny room with a window in the back where you order and receive your meal, a small narrow counter next to it with six round, worn down bar-stools on metal poles (one of the seats is missing, though), the menu on a pin-board at the opposite wall, a white board with the daily specials on the small wall of the room, a pink trash can in one corner and a very low ceiling with lots of scribblings, cartoons and what I would call “country-graffiti”, on it.
Most of the folks who get their food here do it as take-out fare. And everybody seems to know each other, judging from the conversations I overheard when I was there – it seemed to me as if this place is the “original facebook”, where people from the neighborhood come together and just chat a little with each other face to face, while waiting for their pork sandwiches.
All in all it is a very homey atmosphere, but certainly you would not find “outsiders” like me and my wife there too often. They don’t have a web site, there is no sign on the nearest Highway, US 72, which is about four miles to the west, there is only word of mouth and the locals just simply know that Mary’s is there. So if you don’t have a friend from that area who tells you were to go, you certainly would just drive by the right exit on the Highway ignorantly on your way to or from Huntsville.

This would be a real shame, because apart from the genuine and cozy atmosphere, you would miss out on great food.
As usual, I had the pork plate, which was not a real plate this time, because the supplier didn’t show that week and so they had to improvise. The pork came in a cardboard basket, and the sides in Styrofoam cups. Oh, well, from my point of view this only added to the quirky authenticity of this place. I also had a soda, which came in the original can, and my wife had a slab of ribs. Oddly enough, they had no idea what she was talking about when she ordered a “half rack of ribs”, and we were lucky that a young guy, who apparently had already seen the world despite his youth, translated it for us into the native lingo. It’s the same county we live in, but twenty-five miles apart from each other, three valleys further, we already use different terms for the same things. Amazing.

And “amazing” also describes the ribs real well. Firm and lean, with an excellent dry rub on them, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside; they had a lot of meat on them and just the right amount of fat to enhance the smoky flavor. According to my wife, there was a distinct basic pork aroma in those ribs, and she ranks them in the top three of her list. She didn’t use the accompanying sauce, because that would have just diluted the blissful taste of the pure ribs. The BBQ beans that came with the ribs were, well, very similar to the stuff you get in one of those cans from the supermarket – but the top notch can, to make that clear. The biscuits that came with it were somewhat small and unassuming.
My pork also had a nice flavor, yet it was a bit soggier as I would have liked. It was not submerged in moisture, but I usually like my meat more on the dry side of the spectrum, and this it clearly wasn’t. The sauce that came with it was your run of the mill spicy vinegar variety, which I noticed is kind of a staple on that side of the Monte Sano Mountains. On our side, to the west, the sauces are usually thicker and more fruity than vinegary, or even made with mustard in some places, but once you drive down the hills on the east side, you will find that there the thin liquid vinegary stuff rules. Interesting - you don’t even have to leave the county to be in a fairly different BBQ-world.
As for the sides, the potato salad also reminded me of the concoctions you find in a Supermarket. But the slaw was a different story – it appeared to be hand made, with a very delicious sweet-and-sour taste and with quite a crunchy bite to it.

All in all, we paid twenty-five bucks for a very good meal, where the ribs and the slaw were the two items that clearly stood out. And the atmosphere, the history of that place, the friendliness of the people, the stories you hear there, are just priceless.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Bar-B-Q Smoke House

Quest Log No25 – The Bar-B-Q Smoke House
Decatur, Morgan County

Seventeen Dollars for a BBQ lunch is a bit unusual. Even more so, if the place does not really qualify as a fancy-schmanzy gourmet temple, or does not have yet reached national celebrity status, like some other place in Decatur. No, the rusting, man-high rooster on the bottom of the sign-pole in front of the building, plus some kind of a flying pig on the sign that says “The Bar-B-Q Smoke House” surely indicates a more down to earth eating experience.
Well, down to earth is the level of comfort when you leave this Smoke House, dragging your full belly behind you after trying in vain to leave a clean three-meat combo plate with all the fixin’s – you get a lot, and I really do mean A LOT of food for seventeen bucks. I thought I was hungry enough to master this challenge, but had to admit defeat eventually.
So, what you get when you order the three meat combo plate is three meats (pork or beef, ½ chicken, ribs), slaw, beans, two slices of Texas toast, and a basket full of potato wedges.
Since I am not a big fan of chicken (too much work involved in ripping the meat off the bones – I am not here to practice my hand-eye coordination, but to dig in …), I told the very nice lady behind the counter, just give me more pork instead of the bird.
The pork was actually very nicely smoked, with a fine but distinctive smoke aroma, although it was a bit too dry for my taste. It was very tender and the size of the pulled bites was just perfect. They give you four sauces with the plate, two for the pork and two especially for the ribs. The mild pork sauce is very flavorful, with a rich (apple cider?) vinegar body. The hot variety is the same basic stuff, just with some peppers added. Both sauces do complement the pork perfectly.
The rib sauces are thicker, with a bit more sweetness to them. Also here, the hot sauce is a spiced up variety of the mild sauce. Again, both go very well with the ribs, but I also used them on the pork – with no apparent damage to my health. They also have a white sauce in their repertoire, but since I did not want the chicken, I also did not get the white sauce – tough luck.
My thought on the ribs is that their quality was not even in the same ballpark with the pork. They were kind of pale, and although the taste was actually very good, I prefer a good crust and red meat. There was a lot of real tender meat on them, but the apparent lack of a dry rub to give them a bit more kick was a small disappointment.
The sides, on the other hand, were excellent.
Especially the potato wedges were a revelation. They came fresh out of the oven, with an herb crust on them that was just wonderful. The barbeque beans were very good, as well, without the ubiquitous cinnamon, but with a very nice rounded sweet flavor. The slaw looked kind of funky, being more brownish than the usual green/white color, but it tasted very good and I guess here too the apple cider vinegar was used.
I did not really care that much for the Texas toast, which was kind of dry and uninspired.

On the other hand, the atmosphere in this place is very inspiring. They have only a handful of tables to sit in there, but each table has a nice view at the proceedings on the Point Mallard Parkway that runs directly in front of parking lot.
The furniture is wooden tables on poles with laminated regional advertisements on top of it, and metal tube chairs. No booths, no plastic, no fake fanciness.
There is a constant coming and going, and most customers are greeted with their names, and also seem to know each other, too. I guess that not many tourists like me, from, say, Madison or Limestone Counties, ever find their way to this little jewel of southern cuisine and southern hospitality in Decatur. But if you are really hungry and want to fill your belly with real quality southern food, you should maybe consider an expedition to the Smoke House once in a while – you will be rewarded richly for your boldness.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Nash BBQ on the Beltline

Quest Log No24 – Nash BBQ on the Beltline

Decatur, Morgan County

“You had the rest, now try the best”.
Proud words that they have on their web site. To make a long story short, yes, I had the rest, and quite many of them are better than Nash BBQ on the Beltline in Decatur. In fact, Nash ranks in close proximity to the very bottom of the list of places I’ve visited so far.

Well, they also claim – on their web site again - that “Hickory smoked BBQ is our specialty” and that they are “still using the same recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation”.
I’d say making bold claims is their real area of expertise.

Hickory smoked … yeah, right. My question would be what they were smoking when they put this on their web site. The meat, pulled pork, was as far removed from being hickory smoked, as I am from winning a Nobel Prize. It tasted very sour, which probably came from the fact that it was drenched in some kind of vinegar-pepper marinade. Even the strongest hickory aroma could not survive that kind of treatment. And quite frankly, I immediately thought “slow cooked” after the first few bites. It was very tender, reasonably lean, and not too mushy, but it certainly lacked every other quality I think an expertly smoked piece of meat should possess.
So, the first and foremost feature of the pork was its sourness, which was then even kicked up a notch through the vinegar-pepper sauce that came in a little cup on the side, and which I foolishly poured over the meat without tasting it first.

That the cole slaw reminded me of a heap of shredded glass that was lying in a puddle of water is not really important here. Looks can be deceiving and actually the relative sweetness of the slaw was a nice counterpart to that vinegar orgy my pork had become. Without that, judged by itself, I fear my appreciation of this particular type of slaw would be less enthusiastic.

Which can be said without any hesitation of the potato salad – it was one of the sorriest excuses to slice a potato in a long time. Can you say “out of a can” …?! Apparently, the folks at Nash can.
Complementing this array of substandard parts was two slices of plain white toast, neatly wrapped in butcher paper.
For all that glorious failure, I paid a little over nine bucks, with a drink. Well, at least the iced tea was freshly brewed and not too sweet.

Oh, I almost forgot – the atmosphere of this place is … special. Nine tables, brown and green checkered linoleum floor, empty walls except for two tiny flat screen TVs and a black board with leaflets on it. That’s it. Frugal. Sober. Boring. Like a freakin’ Hospital cafeteria. But the folks working in there were very friendly and that reconciled me a bit with the rest of my dining experience. “Come again”, were the parting words from the kitchen, when I left. Fat chance. And I would also not recommend betting the farm on me visiting the two other locations of Nash BBQ in Decatur and Hillsboro.